What Unhappy Couples Have In Common

Rocky relationships often share the same set of red flags and negative behaviors. Here are the ones to watch out for — and how to keep them in check.

By Judy Dutton

avid Bakke never thought he’d get divorced. At the start of his marriage in 2006, the 45-year-old from Atlanta, GA adored his wife’s intelligence — and was magnetically attracted to her to boot. Nonetheless, soon after tying the knot, cracks appeared in their relationship. “I was a saver, and my wife was a spender,” Bakke says. “She liked to leave a big mess
You’d be surprised what an effect it can have on a relationship.
in the kitchen and clean it up afterwards; I liked to leave as little to clean up as possible.” While each disagreement was small on its own, “You’d be surprised what an effect it can have on a relationship,” he says. “Not necessarily the habits themselves, but the unwillingness of one spouse to attempt to change them. Many more than one of our arguments began with, ‘If I can’t even get you to put the toilet seat down, how can I ever expect you to…’”

By 2010, Bakke was divorced, and baffled about how he’d gotten there. He was also worried about whether he could trust his instincts for relationships in the future: How could he know whether the next woman he was with would stick around? While none of us has a crystal ball, scientists have found that certain traits are common amongst those relationships that founder. Here are some of the most common ones to watch for — and what to do if you encounter them in your own love life.

Identifying the “four horsemen” of failed relationships
John Gottman, director of the “Love Lab” at Seattle University, has studied thousands of couples for decades. By dissecting every nuance of their rapport from eye rolls to shrugs, he can predict with 94 percent accuracy whether a relationship will eventually dissolve. Four traits turned out to be the most reliable predictors of a breakup (especially when they’re combined in some fashion), so Gottman named them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These traits include: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Criticism involves attacking your partner’s personality or character by saying something like, “you never help with the dishes” or “why are you always so late?” Contempt involves putting your partner down (i.e., “you’re stupid for believing that”). Defensiveness often involves rebuffing your partner’s complaint with one of your own (“I may be late, but you’re way too uptight about it.”) Stonewalling involves clamming up and refusing to hash things out with your partner at all.

“We all do all of these things — that’s not the problem,” says Katie Ramsburgh, a counselor at the Gottman Institute. It’s when these flaws run unchecked that they can drive a couple apart. To keep this from happening, all you need to do is learn some techniques to combat them. For example, if your partner says, “You haven’t been helping much with the dishes,” don’t immediately volley back with, “Yes, but you haven’t been pitching in with the dog-walking much.” Instead, hear what your partner has to say, and then acknowledge it. Replace negative generalizations (“you never make an effort with my family”) with constructive specifics (“It would mean a lot to me if we spent more time with my family over the summer”). Based on exit surveys, 86 percent of couples make progress on a major gridlock issue in their relationship using Gottman’s methods, which are taught to them in a two-day workshop.

Enough about the bad stuff…what about the good?
While couples tend to hone in on the prevalence of negative interactions to predict whether or not they’ll split, the prevalence of positive interactions is equally critical. According to
It’s important that you reiterate your appreciation for each other often.
Gottman, the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions should be 20 to 1 during normal conversations — or 5 to 1 during an argument. These results were echoed by Terri Orbuch, project director for the NIH-funded Early Years of Marriage Project at the University of Michigan and author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. In her research, she found that 67 percent of happy couples say their spouse “often” made them feel good about themselves, whereas only 27 percent of unhappy couples could claim the same thing. The moral of the story: While you might assume your partner already knows you think he or she is smart/funny/sexy, or that you’re grateful he or she cooked dinner, it’s important that you reiterate your appreciation for each other often.

Marital affairs are rarely the culprit
Think infidelity must be the top cause of divorce? On the contrary: William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and director of the Couples on the Brink project, found in his research that the main causes of divorce weren’t the highly dramatic ones people might expect (like adultery or domestic violence), but rather the “soft” reasons, like “we just grew apart.” Doherty isn’t sure why this is the case, although he has his theories. “We think that it may be that the softer reasons are ones where they don’t have a lot of loving feelings anymore,” he says. “If your spouse cheated on you, you may still be in love with [this person], and still might ideally want it to work out. But if the fires have just gone out, that may mean you’re less optimistic.”

The upshot? Don’t assume that just because you two don’t fight constantly or get in jealous spats that everything is OK. You two need to continue working on the “soft” side of your relationship, too. In particular, engaging in new activities together — from taking a Thai cooking class to salsa lessons — will add additional sparks. And here’s why: novelty drives up your levels of dopamine, a chemical in our bodies that’s also released when we first fall in love. In one study, Arthur Aron at the University of New York in Stony Brook asked couples to spend 90 minutes a week together engaged in familiar pastimes, such as dinner out or a movie. The other group of couples spent 90 minutes a week engaged in more unusual activities. After 10 weeks, couples filled out a marital satisfaction survey. Those that had gone on unfamiliar dates were much happier than the ones who had stuck with doing the usual stuff — proof that staying in love isn’t as mysterious as we might think.

Judy Dutton ( is the author of Secrets from the Sex Lab and Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch… and What It Takes to Win.
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